The consequences of blogging under one’s own name

Sadly, a crank has silenced another skeptic.

Many of you may know EpiRen, which is the Twitter and blog handle (and sometimes commenting handle here) of René Najera. René is an epidemiologist employed by the state public health department of health of an East Coast state and has been a force for reality- and science-based discussions of medicine, in particular vaccines. In fact, he’s come out as a strong defender of vaccines against anti-vaccine lies.

Unfortunately, EpiRen is no more, at least online; that is, if he wants to keep his job.

As related to my by Liz Ditz, A Public Servant, Blogging and Tweeting Under His Own Name, Has Been Silenced By His Employers:

Last weekend, Mr. Najera had a heated exchange with a pharmaceuticals “entrepreneur”, Mr. X– I put that in quotes as Mr. X. made some claims that don’t stand up. Mr. X also made a series of ad hominem attacks on Jen Gunter MD, to which Mr. Najera responded.

Rather than responding to Mr. Najera, Mr. X escalated in a particularly virulent way. Mr. X sent a series of emails–complaining about Mr. Najera’s opinions, complaining about Mr. Najera’s defense of vaccination, and threatening legal action–to a great many people senior to Mr. Najera in his department — starting with Mr. Najera’s immediate superior. Mr. X was able to do so because Mr. Najera was blogging under his own name, named the state in which he worked, and because the name René Najera is rather uncommon — especially in a small, East Coast state.

The result was, unfortunately, predictable. René was ordered by his superiors to cease all blogging, Twittering, and other social network activity related to public health. Having just last year been the subject of an e-mail and telephone campaign to try to get my university to fire me for my online activities, I completely sympathize with what René went through. Government and corporate organizations can be completely obtuse about the Internet, blogosphere, and the new social media, and, quite frankly, what one does in one’s own time should in general not be so restricted. That I’m fortunate enough to work for a university that values free speech for its faculty (the dean herself called me to assure me of this) does not mean that others are that fortunate.

It turns out that the person responsible for silencing René showed up in the comments of Liz’s post. Not only was this person gloating, but he immediately started threatening other anonymous/pseudonymous commenters who started criticizing his actions and whose opinions that he didn’t like. Here is his comment reposted in its entirety, with no editing:

i am mr. x; first, i am not anti-vax; second, i didn’t want epiren to stop posting, but rather to take down the defamatory blog; third, i am not done going after every individual who defames me.

you think you are safe, but all i have to do is file a john doe – or hire a cyber investigator. these courses of action cost less than $10,000 each; which means every person who is afraid of the light can be exposed.

i will not tolerate harassment, defamation, or any such action by any of you. i am very aware of all of you, and have the capital and the will to go after each and every one of you ONLY IF you defame or slander me.

i am self employed if you count owning 11 pharmaceutical companies with cum gross sales over 1/2 billion.

His very next comment continued his threats:

and just so we are clear. the next person on the list is anarchic teapot. i’ve already hired two firms to track him down.

I encourage my readers to peruse the comment thread there to see the rest of his comments. They degenerate from there, down to a poorly written, spelling error laden threatening letter to Liz. Sadly, this is a very typical reaction of someone who can’t win a debate based on science, facts, and logic. I know, as I’ve experienced these sorts of threats several times over the last six years. Indeed, the identity and goals of this particular crank are utterly unimportant, as his he. For purposes of this post, he serves only as a conveniently timed example of what can be the consequences of blogging under one’s own name. This pathetic bully is simply a convenient villain whose actions demonstrate far more clearly than words why a blogger might wish to blog under a pseudonym.

A favorite tactic of cranks trying to silence bloggers is what this particular bully did to succeed in silencing René: Start a campaign of e-mail complaints to the blogger’s superiors and coworkers at his place of employment. The first time that happened to me was in 2005, when a man named William P. O’Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group sent threatening e-mails to my department chair, my cancer center director, my division chief, and me. Fortunately, no one really cared (seriously, his complaint was simply that I happened to like Peter Bowditch’s criticisms of various purveyors of pseudoscience), and soon afterward every time he sent me a threat I would tell him that I was forwarding it to my aforementioned bosses. And I did. Particularly satisfying was how my then-chairman told me this guy was obviously a bully and to ignore him. Last summer, Jake Crosby over at the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism wrote a post trying to paint me as hopelessly in the thrall of big pharma, and as a result AoA minions, flacks, and shills began an e-mail campaign to the board of directors of my university trying to get me fired. Fortunately that went nowhere, but it did cause me serious agita, particularly when the dean called me about it–at least it caused me agita until I realized that it was a call of support.

Oddly enough, not long after this kerfuffle erupted, our cyberbully took down his blog, Twitter account, and YouTube channel. Interestingly, though, he also appears to have eliminated access to his full name on his LinkedIn account. Personally, I find this puzzling, but maybe this man does have some shame after all.

Many of my readers know that the issue of pseudonymous blogging at ScienceBlogs has come to the forefront again. What certain corporate types appear not to understand is that the problem with combatting pseudoscience is that cranks don’t play fair on social media. When they start losing or when criticism starts to sting, many will just slink away. However, there is a significant minority who are bullies. This significant minority will try its best to silence skeptics and supporters of science using any and all online tactics. One favored tactic is frivolous lawsuits, examples of which I’ve documented here time and time again.

So why am I writing this? My purpose is simple. I want to use this unfortunate recent event and my own experience as an example to demonstrate that there are valid reasons why people choose to blog, Twitter, and comment using pseudonyms, and those reasons usually do not involve hiding from responsibility for their words. All too often, they involve wanting to take reasonable precautions against people like William P. O’Neill, Jake Crosby, and EpiRen’s tormenter. As another commenter, Corinna Becker, put it:

I completely understand the reasoning behind why people would use a pseudonym, to protect oneself and one’s family from potentially harmful situations as has been played out with EpiRen, to far worse and more dangerous threats. I myself am in a position where I can afford to use my real name, and value the transparency for my readers, but completely understand the reason why some level of anonymity is needed for people.

In a way, Mr. X has provided us a great example of the risk and benefits of anonymity when blogging. So thank you, Mr. X, for being willing to step up to the job. However, I find it a great shame and a disgust that you would target such a valuable source to the global community at large.

For all too many bloggers, the consequence of not taking such reasonable precautions is to meet the fate of EpiRen.

ADDENDUM: P.Z. Myers has weighed in.

ADDENDUM #2: Elswhere, our litigious bully still doesn’t get it:

oh, i think it’s too late for Rene. Unfortunately, you all have made such a stink that I am not sure he’s going to last long.

in fact, I think the only thing that would save him would be for someone to sue him and his employer and force his employer to defend him and retract the whole thing.

if anyone’s got any suggestions, let me know. I’m on your side. This unjustice against Rene has got to end, and NOW!